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Inevitably I am drawn into the games-and-art thing

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

Comparison: Ritual

A group of monks singing a service, daily or weekly or whatever the ritual entails -- or Tibetan sand mandalas, or etc. The song, or the visual design, may certainly be recorded and reproduced as art. People may perform (sing, construct) works in the traditional artistic sense, for an audience. But this is not the goal or experience of the ritual practitioners -- not primarily. They are doing, not presenting.

But then, where did the song come from? Someone composed it for the monks, and we accept that as an artistic activity (even if the sung service itself might be something else).

Perhaps it is improvisatory. (I don't know where mandala designs come from.) The conventions, elements, and boundaries of improvisation might themselves have been composed by someone. More likely -- in such improvisatory traditions -- they evolved, in a thousand unattributed acts of creativity over years or centuries.

Where is a videogame against that backdrop? Not at the purely compositional end; the player is doing more than interpreting a score. Not at the purely improvisatory end; there is always a game designer composing the boundaries, affordances, and elements of choice. But this looks like a range along which various games can comfortably sit.

Comparison: Sports

A group of basketball players on the court are not there to perform -- not primarily. They're there to find out who is better at getting a ball through a hoop. They are observed, but a sports audience is not a performance audience.

But then, where did the rules of basketball come from? I bet someone knows... yes, from a Dr. Naismith in 1891 (followed by years of community evolution). Well. Here we have a game designer. For all the discussion of sports in our culture, little light falls on the designers. There's plenty of light (and heat) on the rules of the game, mind you -- particularly as they evolve and change. But the terms are the fitness and functionality of the rules, and how they shape play today. The history and context of the creators are only of marginal interest; nor is how they may influence sports of the future. This is discussion of day-to-day craft and function, not a discussion about art.

That is: the question of whether the game of basketball is art is not a question that sports people care about -- and maybe the videogame world should take that as a cue. ...But if you said that some change to the rules made the game ugly, or more beautiful, I suspect that most sports people would know just what you mean.

The domain of practice that requires fitness, functionality, and beauty is design, not art. No one blinks at calling videogames a field of design. I'm a game designer -- objections? No. And of course we accept that design can be studied at art schools, discussed in art journals, and displayed in art museums. So perhaps that's all the reframing we need.

(Art museums love exhibits of chairs. I love 'em too. If I weren't into games, I'd design chairs.)

And so: Design

What nerves get tweaked if we say that games are design rather than art? Three of mine:

  • The origin of sports are few and distant in history. Videogames are made by people striving before our eyes. I want to dignify that struggle as artistic effort. (I note that while basketball and baseball feel like permanent features of life, Catan and Dominion are current. Board games, like videogames, are a live topic. Plus, of course, the best-known ab initio creation of a sport, these past few years, took place in a novel.)

  • Games have text and story. We have a strong bias that text -- the text of fiction and narrative, if not necessarily the text of description or argument -- is art. Design is often for text, but only occasionally includes it. (If a writer illustrates and inscribes her own text, we think of that as art upon art. The magazine layout designer gets no such generosity.)

  • Design has function. Art, in some angle of my terminology, does not. (I think of the song and the painting, which exist to convey an experience and impinge upon no worldly concern. Of course I know this is an idealization and is bunk. The monks would say the same.)

If the upshot of all our argument is that videogames are too functional to be art, and that art is supposed to just "sit there and do nothing", then I am going to laugh and laugh and laugh.

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